Union Keeps Tight Rein on Prisons

Guards hold sway over decisions once reserved for corrections agency. 'The department lets them run the prisons,' one former official says.

By Tim Reiterman
Times Staff Writer

May 24, 2004

SACRAMENTO — California's prison guards are on the defensive in the Capitol, but they maintain a secure grip inside the state's 32 lockups, from Crescent City to San Diego.

Although the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn. has been a force in state politics for at least a decade, a group of senators announced last week that it would block union members' raises this year unless they renegotiate their costly labor pact. And the prison system is under attack for mismanagement, alleged abuse of inmates and a "code of silence" among some guards.

Still, the union puts its stamp on an array of decisions once left to prison managers.

The guards' labor contract allows the union — not wardens — to fill 70% of the jobs involving the custody of inmates. The group aggressively polices investigations of guards accused of wrongdoing. And the organization has won relaxed sick-leave rules that officials say interfere with staffing and cost the state millions of dollars a year.

Bosses who run afoul of the union are bombarded with cumbersome and costly grievances, records and interviews show. And some supervisors say they have given up trying to discipline errant officers or remove incompetent ones because the union frustrates their efforts.

The union's impact on daily operations is "pervasive," said former Inspector General Steve White, one of the few state officials to have set foot in every prison. "It is not at all times controlling, but it is at all times influential, and it often is the deciding factor…. The department lets them run the prisons."

The union has fought hard to win improved wages, working conditions and training for its 31,000 members, who walk what the guards call "the toughest beat in the state." Officials of the union say its strong defense of members' rights, as well as its sheer size, feed the perception that it rules the prisons.

"We are one piece of the department," said guards union Executive Vice President Lance Corcoran. "We are the largest piece of the department."

Corcoran calls the union's current labor contract, negotiated by former Gov. Gray Davis' administration and ratified by the Legislature in 2002, "the rules of engagement." Supervisors say some of its features have undermined the chain of command, impeded prison operations and burdened administrative staffs.

At one time, prison management decided which officers should fill which jobs and shifts. Defenders said the system was based on merit; critics said supervisors practiced favoritism.

"Years ago, if you were a union activist, the warden would send you to Siberia," Corcoran said.

The guards negotiated a system allowing 70% of the posts to be filled through seniority, with management assigning the rest.

Corcoran said the seniority system is used in a handful of other states, and yields higher morale, performance and attendance. Supervisors say it also can mean people in jobs for which they are not suited. Guards who are complacent about safety, for example, might choose jobs in which that could pose a danger.

New prisons Director Jeanne Woodford said seniority should play a role in job assignments, although giving the union so many job choices "makes it more difficult to put the right personalities with the right tasks." She notes that officers who demonstrate incompetence can be removed. But many supervisors say doing so is difficult.

Lt. Joseph White at the Central California Women's Facility in Chowchilla recalled one officer who struggled to read the numbers on cell keys, preventing him from opening cells quickly in an emergency. "Trying to get him removed, based on his eyesight, was almost impossible," White said, recalling that he took his concerns about the officer to superiors but got no response: "He never got moved."

White declined to name the officer or the institution.

Corcoran said supervisors who do not remove incompetent or otherwise unsuitable employees are remiss.

White belongs to the California Correctional Supervisors Organization, which represents sergeants and above who choose to join that group instead of, or in addition to, the rank-and-file Peace Officers Assn. These supervisors do not have collective bargaining rights, and their salaries have not kept pace with those of the officers. Officers with high seniority can make as much, or more, money than their immediate superiors.

Some experienced officers request a return to lower rank for that reason, or don't seek promotions. One consequence, Corcoran said, is that some prisons, lacking enough seasoned supervisors, are fielding "untrained supervisors…. They are putting people in danger sometimes."

The chain of command also can be a casualty, many supervisors say. "Some officers get insubordinate," said veteran Sgt. Gary Riddle, the supervisors' chapter president at the California Medical Facility in Vacaville.

There is widespread belief that the state's choice of wardens is subject to union influence, because of the organization's clout in Sacramento. The union gives millions in campaign dollars to lawmakers, some of whom confirm warden appointments made by the governor. "People think we control warden appointments, but we don't," said Corcoran. He said the union does voice any objections to the Senate Rules Committee, which confirms appointments.

He said that fewer than five candidates in nine years have been blocked by the union.

Even where wardens are in place, the union plays a role in deciding workplace issues.

"They have a voice including how the buildings are laid out … and staffed," said Officer Tim Paton, a former chapter president at Wasco State Prison in Kern County.

Robert Presley, Youth and Corrections Agency secretary under Davis, said that when officials with the guards union became too involved in management of the prisons during his tenure, he would try to call them to account. But "they would look at me and smile," he said.

Acting wardens, awaiting confirmation, may feel they need to curry favor with the guards union, current and former managers say. This year J. R. Solis, acting warden at the Correctional Training Facility in Soledad, was accused by the correctional supervisors of doing just that.

He named Lt. Michael Biggs, the local guards union president, as head of gang investigation over competing candidates. The leader of the rival supervisors' group, Lt. Patrick Santiago, alleged in a grievance that the appointment was made to please the guards, and created a conflict of interest. He said Biggs was overseeing investigations that could turn up wrongdoing by guards — at the same time he was responsible for providing them with representation.

In a written response, Solis said Biggs would have no role in probing guards' conduct and was separated from other investigators: He had been provided space in the vacant warden's home. "This should eliminate any conflict of interest concerns," Solis wrote.

Santiago appealed to corrections headquarters and state personnel officials, who found no violations.

In a phone interview, Biggs called his critics "crybabies." He said any impropriety he uncovered would be turned over to other investigators, and union shop stewards would represent any guards accused of wrongdoing. Solis returned to his job as chief deputy warden. Solis declined to comment through a spokesman. Biggs still heads the gangs unit.

Wardens who butt heads with the union can expect trouble, often in the form of grievances that consume time and money.

"Administration Declares War," the union's website blared in the midst of a dispute over whether management violated the guards' contract at Wasco State Prison. Among the complaints: A gun post had been deactivated and kitchen staffing reduced, both without union consultation.

Wasco guards leader Darin Standiford said he had many more grievances. "In the past six months, I … probably filed 40 to 50," he said.

Mike Yarborough, chief deputy warden at Lancaster state prison, said, "If the warden … adopts an arrogant approach to the union, the union will … get the warden's attention one way or another." Supervisors who try to discipline guards may become targets of grievances alleging harassment or a hostile work environment.

Sgt. Marilyn Palmore, correctional supervisors president at Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego, said that several years ago she chastised officers for not allowing family to visit a dying inmate in the hospital. "I gave them a direct order … and they filed a grievance on me," she recalled.

The guards union reports that it filed more than 1,200 grievances last year. Corcoran said he has had to warn chapter presidents who have filed dozens and even hundreds, of grievances. "There's a cost to us in staff time…. Our goal is to have harmonious labor relations."

Guards union representatives play a crucial role when members are interviewed by investigators and disciplined by wardens. Lt. Mark Skaggs, an investigator at North Kern State Prison in Delano, said guards' representatives make sure officers' rights are not violated. "If I hurt their feelings or step on their toes, they seek to remove me pending an investigation of my behavior," Skaggs said.

Corcoran said the union does anything necessary to protect members if it feels they are treated unfairly. It once spent thousands of dollars in legal fees to fight a $600 penalty imposed on an officer accused of excessive force and dishonesty.

"We went through seven days of testimony, and the judge revoked it," Corcoran said. "The officer did nothing wrong."

Since sick-leave rules were eased, absences have risen significantly, according to Wendy Still, the deputy corrections director overseeing financial services. Substitutes have to be called in, raising overtime expenses and occasionally putting officers in unfamiliar, potentially dangerous assignments.

Since 1999, officers have been allowed to collect overtime during weeks in which they also used sick time. And under the 2002 contract, the department stopped requiring a doctor's note from officers who showed a pattern of abuse, such as calling in sick before scheduled days off.

Sick leave was 1.9 million hours in 2000 and 2001, then jumped to 2.5 million hours in 2002 and leveled off, corrections records show. Department officials estimate that last year the cost was as high as $101 million, including as much as $87 million for correctional officers.

"Sick leave has gone through the roof," said Tim Borem, watch sergeant and supervisors leader at Calipatria State Prison.

Presley said the most common complaint he heard from wardens was that costs were rising because the union "had control of overtime and sick leave."

While many can understand why officers use sick leave to escape a high-stress job, even some guards are critical of abuse and of the relaxed rules. Lt. L. Sweigert, a guards union member who is a watch commander at the California Medical Facility in Vacaville, said, "It surprised the union [that] the state went along" with the new rules.

The union's influence extends to such seemingly small things as bulletin boards — which can become flashpoints when controversial items are posted.

In 2000, supervisors installed a $278 locked bulletin board at the Wasco prison. Last year, the guards union asked warden Randolph Candelaria for space on the board. When the supervisors refused to share it, the warden ordered keys for each labor group.

The supervisors sued the Department of Corrections, alleging that the prison took its property to appease the guards. The state recently agreed to a judgment requiring the corrections department to pay for the bulletin board, said Candelaria and a correctional supervisors' attorney. And both groups will use it.

Petty as the matter may seem, said Sgt. Bruce Carter, the Wasco supervisors' leader, "the bigger issue is, the Goliath on the block is … using muscle to push out a smaller organization."

Standiford, the Wasco guards' leader, scoffed at that view and said, "I think it's sad member resources are being wasted."

Times staff writer Jenifer Warren contributed to this report.


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